Barring an injury or complete collapse in the second half of the Pac-12 season, Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis is a shoo-in for the league’s Player of the Year award.

The 6-foot-11 junior forward from Lithuania leads the Pac-12 in scoring (20.1 ) and rebounding (9.4) by wide margins, and happens to play for a 16-3 team currently ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press Top 25 media poll.

“I am just taking it as it comes. My goal is to play in the (NBA), and if after this season that can happen, then that is what it is. But if not, then I will probably be back for one more year. I haven’t thought too much about it.” — Utah center Branden Carlson

The only possible reason to not pick Tubelis for the award is if Arizona, 5-3 in league play, doesn’t finish near the top of the standings and No. 5 UCLA (8-0, 17-2) continues to be so dominant that voters award a Bruin such as Jaime Jaquez Jr. with the thinking that MVP honors should go to a player on the best team.

What about Utah’s Branden Carlson? Where does the fourth-year senior fit into the conversation now that he’s fully healthy and clearly the best player on the league’s third-place team heading into the last game of the first half of the Pac-12 season?

Heading into Saturday’s 6 p.m. showdown with Washington at the Huntsman Center, Utah (6-3, 13-7) has surpassed expectations after having been picked to finish 10th in the league, and Carlson has met or exceeded expectations in what might — or might not — be his final season on the Hill.

The 7-footer told the Deseret News at October’s Pac-12 media day that just because he’s played four years and just because he’s older — he was 23 that day — than the typical college senior because he went on a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that he for sure will enter the 2023 NBA draft.

He has another year of eligibility remaining, if he wants it, due to the NCAA allowing all student-athletes an “extra year” after the pandemic altered the 2020-21 season. Carlson’s wife, Maddy, is in her second year of law school at the U., so her having one more year there might play into his decision as well.

“I am just taking it as it comes,” Carlson said on Oct. 26, 2022. “My goal is to play in the league, and if after this season that can happen, then that is what it is. But if not, then I will probably be back for one more year. I haven’t thought too much about it. I am just kinda worried about the season and performing my best for this team and helping this team have its best season.”

No question, Carlson is having his best season as a Ute, and has not only propelled himself up NBA draft boards, but put himself into the Pac-12 PoY discussion behind Tubelis and not many others. He’s also a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors because he’s second in the league in blocked shots (2.26 per game) and third in defensive rebounds (5.84 per game).

Overall, Carlson is fourth in scoring (16.6) and rebounding (7.5) and eighth in field goal percentage, shooting 57%. Amazingly, for a man his size, he’s No. 3 in the Pac-12 in 3-point field goal percentage (43.5%), having made 27 of 62 attempts from beyond the arc.

Carlson, a Bingham High product from South Jordan, was sensational in the Utes’ 77-63 win over Washington State on Thursday in front of an announced crowd of 6,599 at the Huntsman Center. He was 11 of 12 from the field, 3 of 4 from 3-point range, and 3 of 3 from the free-throw line. He also grabbed eight rebounds, had three assists and blocked two shots.

“Yeah, he is a heckuva player. I mean, what he did last year was incredible, considering the ankle (injury), being in health and safety protocols (due to COVID-19), and the appendicitis,” coach Craig Smith said.

“So for him to be able to do all that last year, on a team that struggled offensively, that tells you a lot about that guy. He fits into our system. It is two-fold: He is perfect for our system, and I think our system is really good for him, the way we can move him all over the place. But yes, he is elite.”

In all, Carlson missed eight games last year but still led the team in scoring (13.6) and was second in rebounding (6.0). He was the 11th-leading scorer in the Pac-12 and earned second-team all-conference honors.

He’s been even better in 2022-23, as Utah coaches brought in some inside help for the big man in the form of Wisconsin transfer Ben Carlson and freshman Keba Keita.

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“You get to this time in your fourth year (and you get as dialed in as possible),” Smith said. “He has a different look to him right now. He does. He is just, I mean, he is playing with a lot of confidence, but he is (also) playing as a leader.

“I am so proud of him and where he has come from, and how far he has come,” Smith continued. “And now you get to this point, man, and he is doing everything in every single way that he can. He is a high-level dude.”

Branden Carlson, who is not related to Ben Carlson, said after the big win over Wazzu in which he scored Utah’s final 11 points of the first half with two 3-pointers, two free throws and a dunk that he’s added more leadership skills to his on-court repertoire.

“I definitely want to be more of a leader for this team, a better example. I think last year with the difficulties I had to go through, it was hard to kinda be an example when you are out, not playing for so long,” he said. “So this year I just wanted to come out and show how hard we gotta work and how we gotta be in order to win.”

Other candidates for Pac-12 Player of the Year honors at this point in the season are UCLA’s Jaquez, Colorado’s KJ Simpson and Washington’s Keion Brooks Jr., who is in town Saturday to face the Utes after scoring 25 points in UW’s 75-72 win over Colorado Thursday in Boulder. Simpson had a quiet night, by his standards, for the Buffs and finished with 11.

Runnin’ Utes on the air

Washington (12-8, 4-5)
at Utah (13-7, 6-3)
Saturday, 6 p.m. MST
At Jon M. Huntsman Center
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700

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Regarding the game against Washington (12-8, 4-5), Smith said the Huskies have added some offensive weapons to complement the prickly zone defense that tends to give opponents fits. Junior center Braxton Meah, a 7-1 transfer from Fresno State, “is a monster in the paint, protects the rim,” Smith said. “I think he had seven dunks (in one game). He was like baby Shaq out there.”

Bottom line, the second-year Utes coach said, is Utah has to “take care of business on Saturday” to maintain its status as one of the Pac-12’s top teams.

“We gotta win at home,” Smith said of the only regular-season matchup with Washington this year.

Utah fans are encouraged to wear red as Utah players will be decked out in their throwback red jerseys and some 75 former players will be honored on Alumni Night.

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) and Lazar Stefanovic (20) celebrate at the Huntsman Center.
Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) and Lazar Stefanovic celebrate after Carlson made a 3-point basket against Washington State at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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